In a decision handed down just prior to Christmas, DP (a pseudonym) v Bird  VSC 850 (22 December 2021), a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court ruled that the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat could be sued as vicariously liable for child sexual abuse committed by an assistant parish priest against the plaintiff DP when he was 5 years old (in 1971). The decision (as noted in a recent online press report) seems to be the first time a diocese has been found vicariously liable under common law principles for the actions of a priest, in Australia. In this note I will suggest that the reason for this is that the decision is wrong, as inconsistent with clear High Court of Australia authority. This does not mean that I think that the organised church ought to be allowed to escape liability for harm committed by clergy to children in its care. To the contrary, as explained below, I think the High Court ought to revisit another area of common law which prevents many such claims at the moment. But the decision in DP is not consistent with the course of development of the law of vicarious liability and will, in my judgment, be overturned if there is an appeal on this point.
The NSW Government is currently inviting comment on draft legislation entitled the Children’s Guardian Amendment (Child Safe Scheme) Bill 2020. The legislation has been drawn up in response to the work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and as well as governing “secular” agencies caring for children, it will mandate a new scheme for child protection covering “religious bodies” (see cl 8AA definition of “child safe organisation”, para (c)). The Bill is generally a good idea, but I want to suggest one amendment which will be needed for it to properly protect religious freedom.
I have written an opinion piece on “The Conviction of Cardinal Pell” for the Gospel Coalition Australia website, for those who are interested in reflections on the case from a Biblical and legal perspective.